Benjamin Franklin High School has a daycare center that helps teen parents stay enrolled and graduate from high school. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)
Nicole Alvez and her 10-month-old daughter arrive at Benjamin Franklin High School in the mornings around 7:45, changes her baby's diaper, gets her settled for the day and heads down the hall to class.
Alvez, a 17-year-old senior at the school in Curtis Bay, is set to graduate in about two months. She has defied the odds for teen parents with the help of a fledgling program at the school that provides free day care, coaches new moms and dads and monitors their academic performance.
All of the seniors enrolled in the program since it started in 2014 have finished high school. Nationally, roughly 60 percent of teen parents drop out.
"It's not just a baby drop," said Heather Chapman, the center's deputy director and co-founder. "You can't just bring your child, drop them off and that's it. We want to engage the child and the parent.
"When we wrote the proposal, we were reaching. To see some of the students that we were working with, we didn't know if they were going to graduate because there were so many barriers. You really just sit back and say, 'Wow.'"
The center — officially the United Way Family Center, in acknowledgment of the lead sponsor — is highly unusual. School-based day cares are rare — an informal state survey shows roughly 10 operating in Maryland.
Nationwide, day care centers started popping up in schools 10 to 15 years ago, said Pat Paluzzi, president of the Baltimore-based Healthy Teen Network. They replaced alternative schools that served pregnant girls and teen mothers as schools became more accepting of pregnant and parenting teens.
In Baltimore, Laurence G. Paquin Middle-High School — which educated pregnant girls and teen mothers — closed a several years ago amid low enrollment.
Paluzzi said it is unclear how many such alternative schools operated. Many opened in the 1970s after the passage of federal legislation that guaranteed education opportunities for teens who were pregnant or already parents.
Paluzzi said support for pregnant and parenting teens remains inconsistent, and some girls are still pressured to leave their schools.
The day care at Benjamin Franklin has room for 18 children ages 6 weeks to 4 years old. It has typically run at capacity, with a handful of teen parents on a waiting list.
The fully renovated center, housed in a former art room attached to the school, has rows of cribs, shelves of books and toys, a dress-up station, a water table and colorful murals of whimsical forest creatures.
A dozen staff members provide counseling, home visits, prenatal support and child-parent assessments, and make sure the youngsters are up to date on immunizations.
The center has an operating budget of $485,000, and receives some administrative support from the high school. It receives funding from the United Way, the state Department of Education and other sources.
The center has served 44 children and 58 students since it opened. Ten of the teen parents have been seniors, and all have either graduated or completed the certificate program they were enrolled in. Another 10 community members received services while enrolled in the GED program.
The program was created to meet a need identified by students. Chapman and a team of administrators who were brought in to help turn around the school asked students about barriers to attendance. They found child care was one of the greatest challenges.
The center is one of several interventions for the high-poverty school in an area that is largely isolated from the rest of the city.
The turnaround team created a community center at the high school that opened in June 2014, a few months before the day care center. The community center, working with 75 community partners, provides mental health services, workforce development and job placement, a food bank, GED courses, prom dresses and help with transportation.
Enrollment in the school, which serves ninth- to 12th-graders, has risen from 226 to 470 in the five years since the turnaround effort started.
It is unclear whether or how the $130 million budget shortfall in the city schools might affect the day care program.
Benjamin Franklin High School Principal Christopher Battaglia said he is facing significant funding cuts. Both the community center, known locally as the Ben Center, and the day care program draw on district funds in addition to grants and donations.
"One of the things I am trying to work through is, how do you create this hub for the community and all of these services that impact the kids' education, and how do you keep it afloat?" he said.
"The Ben Center is critical. I am struggling to try and figure that out."
For Nicole and her mother, Tina Alvez, the day care is the key that allows them to juggle work and school.
The Alvezes said dropping out was never an option for Nicole, but finding traditional child care for her baby, Angel, put a major strain on their family. Tina Alvez is a single mother who sorts junk mail at a processing facility. Between her work schedule and Nicole's school day, they needed help watching the baby.
"She is so happy in the morning, because she can't wait to get to school," she said.
"They always make her laugh. When she gets here, she wants to just jump and play."
Nicole said a social worker helps her navigate challenges in school while the day care staff watches to see whether Angel is meeting all of her cognitive and social-emotional development benchmarks.
Nicole and the other parents spend their lunch break with the children to establish mealtime traditions and take part in guided activities such as baby massages that promote bonding and attachment. When the dismissal bell rings, they head to the center and pick up their children.
Nicole said forming relationships with other teen parents is an added bonus.
"There are some people who are just like me," she said. "I am not the only one."
The Benjamin Franklin day care was modeled after one at Wilde Lake High School in Howard County. That center opened in 1985 at a vocational-technical school but moved to Wilde Lake in 1996.
Like the Baltimore program, the Howard County program bucks trends for teen-parent graduation rates. Nearly 100 percent of those enrolled there also graduate. That program provides day care and other services to teens who attend Wilde Lake as well as outreach and case management to teen parents throughout the district.
Ten of the 13 seniors enrolled in the program last year graduated. Its annual budget is about $240,000.
"We've had great success," said Kazandra Anderson, the program director. "A lot of these students need this support on the everyday basis. That one-on-one support makes a huge difference for them."
Richard Barth, dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, said teen pregnancy rates have been on the decline but that programs for student parents remain necessary.
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